This is a series elaborating on 5 of the most valuable things I learned (or gained insight into) by reading all the Caldecott winner and honor books, as I originally outlined on a blog post several weeks ago. I’ll be putting up new posts each week on the subject through next week.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve elaborated on the following things I learned from reading all the Caldecotts, ever:
1. Children’s picture books have evolved dramatically in the last century and many of the changes and evolutions are fascinating and exciting to trace through time. (link)
2. Timeless books do some things that other books don't. Or, if it's possible to be more abstract, certain qualities seemed to rise up again and again in the books that felt most timeless. (link)
3. Not all the Caldecotts’ texts felt timeless to me: there were reasons that some of the books were difficult to locate and required inter-library loans or trips to special libraries at Universities (but then there were also other qualities in those books that made me glad I took the time to seek them out). (link).
This week, I’ll focus on thing NUMBER 4 I learned from reading all the Caldecotts, ever:
4. Everyone knows that, while awards committees do their best to be fair, it’s impossible for subjectivity not to play some role in what gets a sticker and what doesn’t. While reading all the Caldecotts, ever, I often found myself returning to the idea of subjectivity and pondering it. Hopefully I gained some insights on it as a reader that are worth putting to words and sharing.
Whenever the awards are given out, I’ve noticed that there’s always buzz about what was left out, what should have won the medal instead of the honor, etc.
Of course there is. If the task of picking the Caldecotts didn’t include a certain amount of subjectivity, it wouldn’t require a committee to perform it.
But in looking back over the entire list of Caldecott books since 1938, it’s especially interesting to note when a beloved classic like Madeline
, by Ludwig Bemelmans was an honor book, while the winner-proper from that same year, Abraham Lincoln
, by Ingri and Edgar Parlin d’Aulaire, is (in my eyes at least) not nearly as well known now, years into the future (even if it’s a great book).
Does this mean that Madeline
should have won the award-proper, not Abraham Lincoln
I’m not meaning to suggest so. Or to suggest the winner didn’t deserve it. I just mean to point out one of the more obvious years when it’s clear that we may not all agree on the committee's final decisions regarding what book got what award.
A book doesn’t really need a sticker at all to be a beloved classic. Right? Let alone a gold sticker, as opposed to a silver one. But I remember as a kid wondering why a book I didn't really like had a sticker on it, when a book I loved, didn't. Doesn't every kid wonder that?
If Madeline wasn't an obvious enough example let's switch over to the Newbery award for a minute. You may know that Charlotte's Web
won a Newbery honor in 1953. But did you know the title of the Newbery winner-proper from 1953? The winner that year was a book called, Secret Of the Andes
. By no means do I mean to put it down; I'm sure is a great book. But it won over Charlotte's web
? We're talking best of the best, one of the most well-known and most beloved Children's book ever.
So what's my point?
My point is that choosing award-winners is a subjective thing. And by looking through the cannon of Caldecott books, and noticing years like Madeline’s year, it's clear that committees are human. Opinions differ. Subjectivity is a part of the game.
Just for interest’s sake, here’s some other extremely well-known classics (written before 1980) that may surprise you as being honor books their years, not the winners-proper:
, by Ludwig Bemelmans (mentioned above)
Blueberries For Sal
by Robert McCloskey
One Morning In Maine
by Robert McCloskey
Inch by Inch
by Leo Lionni
by Leo Lionni
Frog and Toad are Friends
by Arnold Lobel
by Donald Crews
(Side note: I concede that it’s possible that sometimes a winner-proper from one of the honor books’ years from the above list is perhaps more well-known than the honor book I’m highlighting, but not so well-known to me. That being said, I have been a voracious reader of picture books for decades, I’m familiar with the general canon of children’s literature classics, and I’d guess that I’m at least close to the mark with the above observations).
And now, switching gears a bit...
Here's another note regarding subjectivity that probably won’t come as any surprise for those who follow the awards closely, but I can’t help but point it out anyway.
While the medals used to be given out pretty evenly to both women and men, it’s fairly shocking how infrequently they’ve been given to women in the last several decades.
I’m not the first to ask it, by any stretch, but what’s up with that?
Why is it that more men win this award and its honor? I don’t know. But I’m not the only one who thinks that it's curious (and/or kind of lame). I've read about this subject many times before on others' blogs and in industry journals.
I did some digging to try to find old blog posts and/or articles on this subject to link to here. Alas, I became fatigued of internet surfing in my attempt to find some of the articles I remember reading about this in the past. So I'm copping out a bit here and not being as helpful as I could with this post for the sake of getting back to my own illustration work. In other words, sorry I don't have more links.
But at least I have a few:
Out of 72 Caldecott Gold Medals:
47 have gone to 43 men
20 have gone to 16 women
5 have gone to 5 male/female pairs (all unique illustrator pairs)
Out of 226 Caldecott Honors:
138 have gone to 88 men
83 have gone to 53 women
5 have gone to 4 male/female pairs
(my own note -- I believe these are the numbers over all the years the award has been given. It's substantially more lop-sided in favor of men winning over the last 2 decades or so. Also please note that the opposite is true for Newbery winners -- way more women than men win there, but at least it's fair to say that there's way more women writing for children than illustrating. Step into any children's literature conference and you'll see quickly that women outnumber men there by a large large margin)
Please if someone has interesting links on this topic or remembers old discussions I might link to, include them in the comments.